The show must go on: How Australia’s performing arts sector has survived two years of COVID

The show must go on: How Australia’s performing arts sector has survived two years of COVID

Actress Virginia Gay(ABC Arts: Sarah Walker) After two years of COVID-related delays and cancellations, live performance

Actress Virginia Gay(ABC Arts: Sarah Walker)

After two years of COVID-related delays and cancellations, live performance is returning to Australian stages. But the unprecedented losses have had lasting impacts on the sector.

Six actors stand in a line onstage in various winter attire. They are spotlit and mid performance of the play Cyrano.
Holly Austin, Claude Jabour, Virginia Gay, Milo Hartill, Robin Goldsworthy and Tuuli Narkle in Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Cyrano.(Supplied: MTC/Jeff Busby)

At 4pm on Thursday August 5, 2021, the cast of Cyrano was gathered on Melbourne Theatre Company’s Sumner stage to hear final notes ahead of the evening’s premiere.

There had been zero COVID cases in Victoria the day before and Premier Daniel Andrews and the whole state had breathed a collective sigh of relief.

But that morning, rumours of new cases started to swirl, and talk of another lockdown.

“Somebody had checked their phone, and I’ll never forget the look on their face,” recalls Virginia Gay, Cyrano’s playwright and star.

The cast, creatives and crew, whose rehearsals had been interrupted by a lockdown in July, began to prepare for another, assuming it would start at midnight — as it had before.

But this lockdown was announced for 8pm — snuffing out any hope for Cyrano’s opening night.

Tanned bald man wears glasses, white shirt and black suit jacket while seated on theatre stage with red light in background.
Company Manager and Associate Director for Melbourne Theatre Company Stephen Moore.(ABC Arts: Sarah Walker)

Company manager Stephen Moore told ABC Arts: “The theatre really just sort of froze in time.”

People grabbed their keys and their phones but left everything else in their dressing rooms.

“[We all thought] this is just another blip and we’ll come back and celebrate,” says Moore.

But what Premier Andrews had first called a “seven-day snap lockdown” rolled into an 82-day ordeal, putting an end to Cyrano’s entire run.

“There were lots of tears, but weirdly, not from me,” says Gay.

“I was in a kind of hysteria. I laughed a lot, because it was so absurd.”

She had written the show — a love letter to theatre and to Melbourne — in 2020 while living in isolation in Los Angeles.

Woman with curly blonde hair and blue eyes stands in a blue velvet curtain animated with movement
Actress Virginia Gay(ABC Arts: Sarah Walker)

“Maybe entertainment is frippery, but also it has the capacity to offer something to the world that actually … helps people get through something,” says Gay.

Woman with curly blonde hair and blue eyes stands in a blue velvet curtain animated with movement
Actress Virginia Gay(ABC Arts: Sarah Walker)

“I designed this show for exactly when you feel really f**king isolated, and when you desperately need connection.” 

Woman with curly blonde hair and blue eyes stands in a blue velvet curtain animated with movement
Actress Virginia Gay(ABC Arts: Sarah Walker)

“It made me so incredibly sad [to not be able to perform it].”

A tale of two cities

Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) ended up cancelling 168 performances in 2021, including three full seasons, amounting to a box office loss of $6 million. This is on top of 417 performance cancellations in 2020.

Cyrano is but one of thousands of Australian shows cancelled or postponed because of the pandemic.

According to analysis by EY, done on behalf of peak body Live Performance Australia (LPA), the live entertainment industry lost $1.4 billion in revenue in 2020 as a result of COVID-19, representing a 69 per cent decline.

Victoria — which clocked the most lockdown days of any state — was worst affected, with attendance falling by 79 per cent and revenue slipping to a quarter of its pre-COVID levels.

While Melbourne and Sydney have been hardest hit, the story of the performing arts across Australia since March 2020 has been one of delays, pauses and cancellations.

ABC analysis of survey data from I Lost My Gig (ILMG), a joint initiative between the Australian Music Industry Network and the Australian Festival Association, identified 12,846 workers in the performing arts and live entertainment who reported over 298,000 cancelled job opportunities in the first six months of the pandemic.

Those jobs ranged from large-scale theatre productions to regular pub gigs and amounted to lost income of more than $325.6 million.

These cancellations put thousands of Australians out of work.

ABS employment data shows that job losses among full-time and part-time employed arts and entertainment workers peaked in the first three months of the pandemic, with a 40 per cent decline between February and May 2020.

With the injection of support from JobKeeper between April and September 2020 and the eventual lifting of lockdown restrictions nationally by early 2021, full-time and part-time employment in the sector rebounded to pre-pandemic levels by February 2021.

But in June, just as theatres had begun reopening, the Delta variant plunged swathes of the country back into lockdown and arts and entertainment employment fell again by 8 per cent.

Theatre productions were once again shuttered; Cyrano among them.

Woman with curly blonde hair wears blue denim work shirt and kneels onstage looking off into distance thoughtfully.
Virginia Gay in Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Cyrano.(Supplied: MTC/Jeff Busby)

“If you had said to me two years ago, ‘You will close your show on opening night, hours before,’ I would have been like, ‘Not only would that not happen, but that would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience,'” Gay says.

But she knows of at least eight other Australian companies that have gone through the same thing.

ILMG conducted a follow-up to their 2020 survey to capture the second wave of cancellations. Of the 2,363 responses identified by the ABC as relating to the performing arts and live events, a further $91.5 million in lost income was reported from cancelled work.

Nine in 10 respondents said they had been unable to work or significantly hindered by COVID-19 restrictions since March 2020.

Less than 1 per cent said they had income protection or insurance.

In summary: from the start of the pandemic to November 2021, performing arts and live events workers reported income losses totalling $417.2 million, and over 374,000 cancelled gigs.

While live performance has returned, the sector’s recovery now depends on an ever-evolving set of COVID-safe protocols, public health orders and new variants.

Since the start of the year, several major events including Tamworth Country Music Festival and the Broken Heel drag festival have been cancelled or delayed because of the Omicron outbreak, leaving many in the industry once again without work.

As Australia continues to adjust to a new COVID normal, it’s time to take stock of two years of uncertainty, and the challenging road ahead for the Australian performing arts.

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VacuumHandbrake(ABC Arts: Sarah Walker)

The people behind cancellations

Behind every cancellation are dozens if not hundreds of artists, crew members, and hospitality workers losing out on paid work.

Melissa Kahraman is one of them.

The Sydney-based actor and singer graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney at the end of 2019.

“We were so ready to prove ourselves in a sense,” she recalls.

Fresh out of NIDA, Kahraman landed a role in an independent production of new Australian play April Marlowe’s Abortion, scheduled to open in April 2020 at Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre.

She subsequently lined up two big gigs for 2021: a role in Bell Shakespeare’s Hamlet and another in MTC’s As You Like It.

Young woman with auburn hair pulled back in a bun wears a white neck ruff, black clothes and holds a fibreglass skull.
Hamlet would have been Kahraman’s mainstage debut.(ABC Arts: Sarah Walker)

Hamlet was cancelled during the first national lockdown. Then Kahraman spent two months trying to get an exemption to cross the NSW/Victoria border so she could travel to Melbourne to rehearse for As You Like It.

“Eventually, I got the exemption. But I later found out from the director of the play that it was one day too late.”

The role had been recast.

2021 ILMG data shows that the majority of cancellations were triggered by lockdowns (85 per cent), but nearly half (47 per cent) were also impacted by border restrictions and travel bans.

But Kahraman is feeling optimistic about the future, with jobs lined up for the first half of this year, including a role in the recently announced four-part series Bad Behaviour, adapted from the memoir by Rebecca Starford.

For Luke Carroll, a Sydney-based Wiradjuri actor with 30 years experience in the stage and screen industries, the pandemic prompted a career rethink.

The single father of two was rehearsing for a tour of a Play School live show when the first national lockdown hit.

The tour never happened.

Wiradjuri man with facial hair wears a black t-shirt and sits with hands clasped in theatre foyer looking warmly at the camera.
Actor Luke Carroll in the Belvoir St Theatre foyer.(ABC Arts: Sarah Walker)

“I didn’t know what to do. I haven’t been on any government benefits in my life,” he says.

Carroll worked as a labourer for a friend’s business during the first part of the pandemic.

Wiradjuri man with facial hair wears a black t-shirt and sits with arms crossed in theatre foyer looking up thoughtfully.
Actor Luke Carroll in the Belvoir St Theatre foyer.(ABC Arts: Sarah Walker)

“Working as a labourer was tough, hard going. But it helped me appreciate the money that I earn and what I do with it, and how I spend it.”

He ended up losing about $35,000 worth of acting work in 2020.

The average value of lost income reported to ILMG in 2020 by live arts and entertainment workers was $25,000. In 2021, the average rose to $38,700.

Things picked up for Carroll again by the end of 2020 — including a role in Sunshine Super Girl at Griffith Regional Theatre — but by August 2021 lockdowns had put an end to his acting gigs once again.

That was when Carroll began working as the stakeholder engagement coordinator at Adelaide’s Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute.

He says that before the pandemic, he would never have considered this kind of work — or have been able to work remotely.

“All my life is acting; I’ve been acting since I was nine years of age. I’ve never held an office job,” says Carroll.

“It was bad, especially [in 2020], the amount of work I lost and [in 2021] the lockdown was harder.

After lockdowns ended, he decided to continue working at Tandanya while also picking up acting gigs again, ever hopeful about his industry.

“Freelancing is a tough gig. I always try to think positive though. As an actor, you have to think like that or you just go crazy.”

A Wiradjuri man with a kind face looks up hopefully. He is acting onstage and wears a brown fleece jacket over a grey shirt.
Carroll (pictured) was back on stage in February in Belvoir’s production of At What Cost? by Nathan Maynard, postponed from 2021.(Supplied: Belvoir/Brett Boardman)

‘A black light on the murder scene’

Now that live performance has resumed, the once-in-a-lifetime nature of the pandemic has clearly amplified existing pressures.

Over the last two years, more than half of the 20 shows programmed by Belvoir have been cancelled, five for good.

Artistic director Eamon Flack says they have decided not to “go safe” with their 2022 program, prioritising new Australian works — like At What Cost?, starring Luke Carroll — that were set to premiere in 2020 and 2021, and attempting to employ as many artists as possible.

Staff pay cuts, community support, philanthropy, and state and federal government support have kept Belvoir afloat during the pandemic.

Bald man with light stubble and soft brown eyes looks pensively at the camera while leaning against a backstage wall.
Belvoir St Theatre’s Artistic Director Eamon Flack(ABC Arts: Daniel Boud)

“What we really saw [during the pandemic] was that the whole of the national arts infrastructure is dependent on a massive freelance workforce whose existence, at the best of times, is precarious,” says Flack.

The Belvoir AD says that this dependence is particularly the case for theatre, rather than heritage and ensemble-based art forms like ballet and opera.

ABC analysis of ABS estimates from February shows that ‘formal’ arts and entertainment employment has rebounded substantially since the onset of the pandemic. Total employment remains 4 per cent below pre-COVID levels from February 2020, equal to around 20,000 lost jobs.

But this figure excludes freelance and casual workers, who make up 45 per cent of the arts and entertainment workforce.

Data from the Deputy app, which tracks casual shift work, shows that the arts industry was rostering approximately 140,000 shifts a month before the pandemic. This dropped to 45,898 by April 2020 — a decline of 67 per cent. 

The numbers have not recovered to pre-pandemic levels, with rostered shifts in January this year sitting 20 per cent below January 2020.

“Suddenly you got this snapshot of the way in which the parts of our arts infrastructure that are at the front-edge of meeting the contemporary moment — where the work is most urgent — are the most vulnerable parts of the sector.

“The kind of people who do the work … are the last to get securely employed.”

Woman with long blonde hair wears black clothes and headset while sitting at stage management desk in theatre wing.
Stage Manager for the Australian production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Rex Rees.(ABC Arts: Sarah Walker)

Veteran stage manager Rex Rees agrees that the pandemic exposed a number of pre-existing issues within the performing arts industry.

Woman with long blonde hair wears black clothes and headset while sitting at stage management desk in theatre wing.
Stage Manager for the Australian production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Rex Rees.(ABC Arts: Sarah Walker)

“The lack of support [for casuals] has very much been highlighted and … it’s not just a government issue. It’s also an issue within the industry and how we better support that part of our workforce.”

While the Bureau of Communications, Arts and Regional Research (BCARR) reports that $8 billion in JobKeeper payments was directed to individuals and businesses working in the creative and cultural sector, only half of the estimated 645,000 Australians working in creative industries received JobKeeper during its first phase (April-September 2020).

This discrepancy is widely attributed to the exclusion of casual workers from JobKeeper.

An ABC analysis of ILMG data corroborates this gap in government support for the arts sector.

The data shows that two-thirds of performing arts and live events workers were ineligible for the federal COVID-19 Disaster Relief payments, while four in five were ineligible for state or territory support packages.

On average, respondents estimated that just 6 per cent of their income would be covered by state or federal support.

Many arts workers have had to turn to crisis services in lieu of government support during the pandemic.

Young woman with auburn hair in a bun wears a white neck ruff, black clothes and leans against a dark wall with arms folded.
Actress Melissa Kahraman.(ABC Arts: Sarah Walker)

Kahraman was briefly on JobKeeper for her teaching work, but, after struggling to get on JobSeeker, ended up turning to the Actors Benevolent Fund and Support Act for help with rent and groceries.

“It illuminated how little support we feel we get from the government … it just felt like we were so uncared for,” she says.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the music industry’s crisis support charity Support Act, which received $40 million in funding from the federal government, has approved 16,400 grants for crisis relief, worth $36.3 million. This represents an increase of more than 5,000 per cent from pre-pandemic levels.

The Actors Benevolent Fund (ABF), a not-for-profit organisation offering crisis support to performing arts workers, was also inundated with requests. Crisis payments via its Victorian branch increased 16-fold (more than 1,400 per cent) in 2020 compared with 2019, and the NSW/ACT branch reported a jump of 1,517 per cent.

A spokesperson for ABF NSW said the most commonly requested areas for assistance were: rent, utilities, food vouchers, mental and physical health therapy, car registration and insurance, council rates, and strata fees.

Declan Greene, artistic director of Sydney’s Griffin Theatre, says: “COVID created a few new problems, but mostly what it did was magnify problems and inequalities that were already rife in the industry.

“There is just huge income inequality and financial insecurity.”

Ella Caldwell, artistic director of Melbourne’s Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre, agrees.

“Particularly in the small-to-medium sector and with independent artists, I really saw the impact on them in terms of wellbeing. But it was already there, it was just magnified,” she says.

A mass exodus, stage right

Unsurprisingly, the pandemic and its knock-on economic effects have taken a significant toll on the mental and emotional wellbeing of many in the industry.

There has been a 300 per cent increase in calls to the Support Act Helpline compared with pre-COVID levels, with 2,700 hours of counselling provided to clients from across the arts.

It’s no wonder that many have considered leaving the industry.

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AuditoriumHandbrake(ABC Arts: Sarah Walker)

Data collected by ILMG in July last year shows that more than half (57 per cent) of performing arts and live events workers surveyed have looked for work in other industries.

One in three have sought opportunities overseas.

And 60 per cent said they would consider leaving the arts permanently if they could gain stable employment in another industry.

Craig Hood is an automation expert who worked on around 1,000 performances of the Australian production of The Book of Mormon between 2016 and 2019.

Hood had been contracted to work on the Australian production of 9 to 5 the Musical, which was originally set to open in Sydney in May 2020. But March’s industry-wide shutdown put an end to that gig.

“It all became a blur. I had multiple breakdowns … I just didn’t know what to do, I’d never felt this. I was employed for 10 years straight,” Hood recalls.

Hood was staying with his parents in Queensland and applying for 20 to 30 jobs a week.

“[The performing arts is] a contractor world, you’re used to going from job to job … [but] when it came to the pandemic, it was a shut-up shop. So that’s where my life had to be reassessed.”

Hood ended up relocating to Adelaide with his partner, who had lost work as a lighting technician in musical theatre, and started working in logistics at Ikea.

Man with short blonde hair wearing high vis IKEA shirt stands with hands in pockets outside Ikea store.
Now that big musical theatre productions are back, Hood (pictured) has been approached about three big jobs but has turned them all down.(Supplied)

“I’ve not been without a job for over a year now, I have a weekly income … it’s nowhere near what I used to make, but I know what’s coming in,” he says.

And after a decade that often involved working 78-hour weeks including late nights and weekends, he now has every second weekend off and works 76-hour fortnights.

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ropes_artsautopsy(ABC Arts: Sarah Walker)

Many interviewed for this story spoke of how the pandemic had shown them the lack of work-life balance inherent to the performing arts.

“I love theatre … I will never say I’ve left. But as time goes on, it becomes a bit clearer that I may not return,” says Hood.

Rex Rees had moved with her young family from Queensland to Melbourne to work as deputy stage manager on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child two weeks before what she calls “Black Sunday” (March 15, 2020) when the first lockdown put an end to performances.

Harry Potter staff were on long-term run-of-show contracts, which meant they were eligible for JobKeeper. Rees has stayed employed on the production through Melbourne’s many lockdowns.

Still, the 20-year veteran of commercial theatre began studying midwifery.

“[The shutdown was] catastrophic for the industry and it was just so unknown … you’re watching so many other shows and companies just close the doors.”

Woman with long blonde hair wears black clothes and headset while leaning against elaborate wooden stage prop.
“I would love to stay in the industry; I just don’t know how feasible it will be moving forward,” Rees says.(ABC Arts: Sarah Walker)

Harry Potter is back on stage and set to transition to its reimagined one-part format in May.

Rees is now working as stage manager and juggling full-time work with part-time study. She says crewing the show hasn’t been easy.

“There’s been a mass exodus of staff across the industry … a huge amount of knowledge has walked away.”

Both Flack and Greene confirm that they’ve seen many artists exit stage right.

“People have left, people have not been able to practise, and young artists coming out … they’ve got no runs on the board because they haven’t been able to participate,” says Flack.

“It’s certainly gotten harder to cast shows.”

Government investment

Many freelancers interviewed for this story spoke of feeling angry and disappointed with the federal government’s response to the industry shutdowns.

Gay says: “Wouldn’t it be great to think that the government really listened and gave a s**t and considered our work [to be] work that deserved to be supported?

Woman with curly blonde hair and blue eyes looks up and pulls on a blue velvet curtain with a look of despair.
Actress Virginia Gay(ABC Arts: Sarah Walker)

“Artists were the last people to be considered by the government.”

In June 2020, following sector-wide criticism, the federal government announced its Creative Economy COVID Support Package, which includes a number of industry-specific grants. The initial funding allocation was $250 million but has since grown to $484 million.

For context: that amount of federal funding would cover about one-third of the losses calculated by EY for the performing arts in 2020 alone — leaving a shortfall of $916 million, not including losses accrued by other subsections of the arts.

LPA has indicated that revenue losses for 2021 (not available until later this year) will be even greater still.

It is also worth noting that the arts received substantially less COVID stimulus and crisis support compared to other industries. Funding allocated to the construction sector alone was nearly 30 times more than the $484 million provided to the arts.

In a statement, the Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts Paul Fletcher pointed to the government’s $200 million Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (RISE) fund, part of its Creative Economy package, as a key indicator of its support for the arts.

Several rows of red velvet theatre seats in an auditorium.
Red velvet theatre seats at Her Majesty’s Theatre.(ABC Arts: Sarah Walker)

“We know the arts sector continues to face challenges unique to their industry, which is why we acted quickly in establishing extensive support throughout the pandemic,” the Minister said.

The seventh and final round of RISE funding was allocated this month.

“It has gone to 541 projects, creating more than 213,000 jobs across Australia, to be seen by a total audience of 55 million people.”

But the allocation of RISE funding has also been called into question, with decisions falling to the federal Arts department instead of the Australia Council, as is custom.

Among criticisms levelled at the government over its Creative Economy package is that much of it has been targeted at businesses, with limited support available for individual arts workers.

Many of the recipients have been major institutions — particularly via the $50 million COVID-19 Arts Sustainability Fund, of which $42.9 million has been allocated to 15 leading institutions.

This includes Belvoir, who received $500,000; and MTC, who after the cancellation of Cyrano and with the rest of the 2021 season at risk, were given a $5 million rescue package.

The funding has been vigorously welcomed by industry stakeholders.

Woman with short dark hair, black shirt, spotty pants and square framed glasses looks out window from inside theatre foyer.
Melbourne Theatre Company Executive Director Virginia Lovett.(ABC Arts: Sarah Walker)

Executive director and co-CEO Virginia Lovett says: “Our argument to the government, which they heard and I thank them, was that we were drawing unreasonably down on our reserves and that we were going to come out of this crisis with an inability to realise our future artistic visions and programs.”

MTC envisions this year as a “recovery year” and is mitigating risk through a slightly smaller season and reduced production costs — including smaller casts.

Lovett says she’s in constant conversation with governments from local to federal, and also involved in discussions across the tourism, hospitality and live performance industries.

“JobKeeper was fantastic for us; other investment has been fantastic for us [over the pandemic]. But for us to thrive, then all levels of government need to keep that sort of investment in the arts up,” she says.

“As I say: ‘Don’t let a good crisis go to waste’ — we need to really build on what we’ve learned, and keep that momentum going.”

Various bits of funding have kept other companies afloat through the pandemic, though it remains to be seen how companies will weather the inevitable disruption of further outbreaks.

A socially distanced audience is not possible at Griffin Theatre, but the size of their space has enabled them to be more nimble and to reschedule most of 2021’s cancelled productions.

Griffin has received multi-level government funding to stay afloat, including federal RISE funding, NSW state government subsidies for box office losses, and JobKeeper.

He considered programming fewer shows for 2022.

White man with curly cropped brown hair wears red and black chain shirt over white t-shirt and leans against railing in theatre.
Artistic Director for Griffin Theatre Company Declan Greene(ABC Arts: Daniel Boud)

“But that felt like ethically completely the wrong road to go down because, of course, that means fewer jobs for artists.”

Greene says this year is set to be harder, with contingency planning for continuing interruptions.

“We’re essentially planning for less income … and that’s hard because we don’t necessarily have anything else at the moment to buffer that with,” he says.

Melbourne’s Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre — the stomping ground of industry stalwarts like actor Kat Stewart — had spent years developing Michele Lee’s Single Ladies (through their INK program), but had to cancel its debut season the day before opening night in 2020.

While they were able to bring back Single Ladies in 2021, the last two years have been a tale of disruptions and cancellations.

Staff were eligible for JobKeeper and the company used philanthropic and state government funds to continue developing and making work so they could pay artists.

“There’s been fairly consistent state government support, but I think the unique circumstances of the live performing arts haven’t necessarily been taken into account across the board,” says Red Stitch general manager Fiona Symonds.

“There have been a lot of freelance and independent artists and small-to-medium companies that have really struggled and haven’t had a level of certainty or consistency of support, which has made it really difficult and really stressful for everyone.”

Since 2016, Red Stitch has gone without multi-year federal arts funding, and in 2021 the City of Port Phillip announced it would cut three-year funding to Red Stitch worth $30,000 per year. The decision was reversed following community outcry.

But the uncertainty of COVID-19 and the company’s funding situation means they’ve decided to release this year’s program production by production.

Woman with short greying hair wears floral dress and black blazer sitting in red seating bank with hands clasped.
Red Stitch General Manager Fiona Symonds.(ABC Arts: Sarah Walker)

“We didn’t want to put ourselves in a position where we were announcing a whole season and then had to say ‘sorry’,” Symonds says.

The company has introduced a new membership model as a source of income, and in late December they were fortunate to secure a $550,000 grant from the RISE fund.

They also welcomed the recently announced Victorian Government COVID-19 events insurance.

The NSW, Tasmanian, and Western Australian governments have since announced similar schemes for major events cancelled or significantly disrupted by public health orders. But the eligibility criteria vary state to state and cater more to events with higher projected capacity and revenue. Cover is only available for events staged within the designated state’s borders and does not extend to public health orders issued by other states or territories, so touring shows may not be able to recoup losses for performances planned elsewhere.

While these initiatives offer much-needed support to large-scale events and festivals, smaller and independent companies continue to bear the brunt of the pandemic’s disruption.

The Omicron outbreak late last year saw fewer people attending live performances — a byproduct of what some have called the ‘shadow’ lockdown. And despite the relative easing of restrictions since, companies are now contending with delays because of cast and crew infections, and ad hoc venue closures.

This is particularly problematic for the independent sector, which has largely missed out on government support.

In the past two months, musical theatre outfit Squabbalogic postponed its production of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, due to open February 17, while Sydney’s independent theatre and performance venue Giant Dwarf announced its permanent closure.

In a statement, Giant Dwarf’s owners said: “The second lockdown really hit us hard.”

With unpredictable and ongoing disruptions, several peak bodies representing live performance (including LPA, APRA AMCOS, and ARIA) have called on the federal government to establish a nationwide insurance scheme.

When asked if the government would consider the proposal, a spokesperson for the federal Arts Minister said: “It is decisions by state government health authorities which trigger the business losses faced by producers of arts and entertainment events. Therefore, it is state governments which are best placed to provide cover against this kind of risk.”

Woman with long blonde hair swept back wears a black and white spotted shirt and stands backlit onstage with hands behind back.
Red Stitch Artistic Director Ella Caldwell.(ABC Arts: Sarah Walker)

But Red Stitch Artistic Director Ella Caldwell says a multi-tiered approach to support is needed — from federal to state, local and philanthropic. 

“That sort of balance is crucial moving forward.”

Woman with long blonde hair swept back wears a black and white spotted shirt and stands backlit onstage with hands behind back.
Red Stitch Artistic Director Ella Caldwell.(ABC Arts: Sarah Walker)

“I think it’s really important to acknowledge that we are all trying to work cohesively together … and that we are actually all in the same storm.”

Flack also wants a more coordinated approach to arts support and funding.

“What we’re seeing is that our national cultural infrastructure is out of date and that there hasn’t been a real serious, comprehensive look at it since the last millennium.

Data shows that federal arts funding has stagnated over the past decade, and arts funding across all levels of government has declined.

Independent think tank A New Approach (ANA) analysed ABS Cultural Funding data against population growth and found that per capita spending on the arts and culture sector across all three levels of government declined by 6.9 per cent between 2007-08 and 2019-20.

Flack says the arts funding crisis is “a gross failing of governments of all stripes on both sides, across many, many years”.

He wants to see a tripling of funding to the Australia Council, which would amount to $659.4 million per year based on its current appropriation for 2021-2022. 

Bald man with light stubble and soft brown eyes looks pensively at the camera while sitting at the top of stairs.
Belvoir St Theatre’s Artistic Director Eamon Flack.(ABC Arts: Daniel Boud)

“[It] is not actually a lot of money. It’s a pittance, really, but it would revolutionise this country’s cultural life.

“At the moment … I don’t think that the public arts dollar reaches enough Australians — that’s ultimately what it is for me. Too many people are left out.”

Data shows there is substantial support for public arts funding in Australia. According to the Australia Council, just shy of two-thirds of Australians (63 per cent) agree that the arts should receive public funding, while nearly three in four (73 per cent) believe the arts should be an important part of education.

Despite the decade-long decline in funding, COVID-specific support packages have lifted federal arts funding to an all-time high.

The chart below compares arts and culture expenditure in 2019-20 across all levels of government with and without COVID-19 specific measures.

The government has touted its record spending of $10.7 billion on the creative sector during the pandemic. This is on top of its $484 million Creative Economy package, but includes whole-of-economy and interim measures. Three-quarters of this amount was spent on JobKeeper ($8 billion), while the remaining $2.7 billion was allocated via the Boosting Cash Flow for Employers payments. Questions remain about the longevity of this elevated support and how the sector will remain resilient in the face of ongoing precarity.

Greene appreciates the COVID-specific responses from governments to keep companies afloat.

“I feel increasingly the solution has got to be a completely new model to how we do [publicly funded arts].”

White man with curly cropped brown hair wears red and black chain shirt over white t-shirt and leans against brick wall.
Artistic Director for Griffin Theatre Company Declan Greene.(ABC Arts: Daniel Boud)

“One of the things that the … [pandemic] has made really clear is that, when you really strip it down, the economy of what we currently call ‘subsidised theatre’ increasingly just doesn’t make sense.

“We essentially can’t pay creatives enough for what they do.”

Hope tempered

As Australia enters its third year of the pandemic, audience sentiment has changed.

Survey data published by Audience Outlook Monitor last month shows that Australian audiences are cautiously optimistic about returning to arts events, with 59 per cent of respondents saying they are ‘ready to attend’. A further 38 per cent say they will attend when the risk of COVID transmission is minimal, and 3 per cent will only attend when there is no risk.

With the prospect of further outbreaks, the findings suggest that audiences will need more time to return to pre-COVID attendance comfort levels.

While audiences are tentatively returning to theatres, thousands of shows from 2020 and 2021 — laboured over with love, creativity and the sheer determination of anyone who works in the performing arts — will never get onto stages.

Audiences did get a taste of Cyrano, even after it was cancelled, when Virginia Gay performed a small section of her show on ABC’s Q&A.

The clip went viral and Gay received countless messages from people sharing their pain, sadness and isolation.

“It was completely overwhelming, that Q&A response — and I will never ever forget it,” recalls Gay.

But this story has a rare happy ending: Cyrano will be back on at the MTC in September this year.

“When [outgoing MTC artistic director] Brett Sheehy told me the news, the floods of tears came,” says Gay.

Company manager Stephen Moore says: “While we are incredibly excited and fortunate to be bringing Cyrano back in 2022 … we’re never going to get back the 2021 production because life has changed and the world has changed and what those creatives and those artists bring to the work is going to be different.

“When we cancel shows and we lose productions, it is a piece of history that’s never to be repeated.”

Gay says that over the past two years she — like so many in the live performing arts — has had to become a “hope temperer”.

“You have to have enough hope to keep going towards making something, anything, and hope that we will be able to get people in to see it and that we will be able to connect with people and make them feel less alone.

“But you also can’t have too much hope, because that immediately leads to these terrible depressions.”

Before the end of 2021, Gay was back on stage at Belvoir with The Boomkak Panto, another work that she wrote in isolation in LA.

Woman with curly blonde hair and blue eyes sits wrapped in a blue velvet curtain and holds a lit sparkler.
Actress Virginia Gay holding a sparkler.(ABC Arts: Sarah Walker)

“The way that we keep hitting our [vaccine] targets and exceeding our targets makes me hopeful.

But I am weary of hope, you have to temper your hope at every turn.”

Credits

Reporting: Anna Freeland and Hannah Reich

Data analysis and production: Anna Freeland

Photography: Sarah Walker and Daniel Boud

Editor: Dee Jefferson

Notes about this story

  • The ABS defines industries included in the Arts and Recreation Services based on their ANZSIC classification. For the purposes of analysis, we have adopted the broadened definition used in the Australia Institute’s Creativity in Crisis report. This includes the motion pictures and sound recording categories, which typically sit under Information Media and Telecommunications in ANZSIC.

  • ABC calculations of I Lost My Gig data differ from those published by ILMG in August 2020 as visual arts related responses have been excluded from our analysis.

  • The ABC acknowledges free curtain hire from Theatre Star.